by Carl Wilson
“This isn’t the kind of show I ever imagined myself going to,” I think I heard my friend say a song or so into former American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel’s set at the Rivoli the other night. I saw what she meant. Eitzel was standing there in Playboy Mansion 1970s beard and moustache, suit and fedora, with a plastic cup of wine, as he crooned and a pianist half his height sat at a red electric keyboard following charts.
She was saying (if she said it) that she wasn’t usually the cabaret-act type. But time had caught up to us, the way it caught up to Mark Eitzel: When he was young he wanted to be Ian Curtis, and even in AMC, a band marked by its pushy quietness and its pedal-steel of despair, he would get stupid drunk live and fall on the other band members yelling. (This Hyde-Jekyllness helped to endear it to a few and to ensure it would never bite even a crouton of commercial success.) Now by both penury and predeliction he is a cabaret performer, and we are cabaret-goers, and we were naked and not ashamed.
We’d last seen him – the first time for both of us I think – in a beautiful theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as the jester-hat-crowning performance of the Merge Records anniversary festival a couple of years ago, with a grand piano. I’d been thinking about that show ever since. Now it was like we were at a supper club managed by Frederico Fellini, watching a lounge act by God’s estranged black-sheep son – not Satan, just the one with a cheap apartment who never calls.
Although I entirely should have been an AMC fan during their prime, I missed out, thinking they were too West Coast for me (they were a San Francisco band, and Eitzel is still a San Francisco dweller), and that the AMC fans I knew had overly fastidious tastes. Now it feels like I was saving Eitzel for later, when I would need him.
The tiny club was only two-thirds full and I kept thinking of more people I wished I’d invited: sometimes so they could have laughed at the joke Eitzel had just made; sometimes so they could have heard the way he’d just hit that note, holding the microphone half a meter away from his face to tame the sound (that antique science), throwing that loudness out like a golden net that caught all the air in its mouth and then released and slumped into a goofy grin; but usually because his songs were so populated with breathing people and broken plaster in a way that made you miss everyone you’ve ever known, the ones you loved and particularly the ones you just liked okay, so you never noticed the moment when you would never see them again.
In between that last time in the theatre and this evening in Fellini’s Man Hole, Mark Eitzel had a heart attack, so it was possible we would never have seen him again.
Before the show I was telling my friend that having not really been in a relationship for a while, I’m lately hyperconscious of living alone, a position of almost exactly equal parts privilege and very bad luck. I hardly know anyone else who lives alone anymore. I’m fond of it but for the fact that there is never anyone home waiting for me or whom I’m waiting for. I’ve been playing Eitzel’s new album Don’t Be a Stranger around the house a lot; the title seems like good advice to the unaccompanied. I usually listen to no music at all, but podcasts, because that’s more like a conversation, but cabaret music is chatty, a good medium for a little talk about being guilty of being ungrateful for the things we chose for ourselves.
After the concert I went to the toilet at the back of the club and when I came out I was awkwardly looking into the open dressing-room door. I glimpsed the unnamed keyboardist and assumed Eitzel was standing a couple of feet away. I had the impulse to saunter in.
But as I told my friend afterwards, I was too embarrassed at my over-eager desire to hit it off with Eitzel immediately and become the best of friends. His easy, charming stage manner made that a breeze to imagine, but performers are not the same off stage, so it’s a trap. He had said that he’d like to move to Canada. But then he demurred that as an “over-the-hill singer-songwriter fag with a heart condition,” he figured he wasn’t high on anyone’s admission list (though come on, Mark, it’s Canada). So I guess he’s not about to be my neighbour.
I was also too eager to go meet other real-life friends at another bar, because I had been missing them, wishing they were there, and it won’t do to try to strike up an intimacy for life when you are in a hurry. For instance Eitzel couldn’t have been in a hurry when he wrote that first song he sang tonight, for the 1994 AMC album San Francisco, with the chorus that goes, “The world is held together by the wind/ That blows through Gena Rowlands’ hair.”
The drinks at the other bar were cheaper and better than the ones at Fellini’s Last Hope Dwarf Rodeo Saloon, and I prefer the Eitzel chorus they use for last call there, “We all have to find our own way out,” to the one that marks time, gentlemen, please, at Fellini’s: “No one here is going to save you.”
But I hoped he wasn’t lonely after the audience was gone, and that he had some music back at his hotel to tell his troubles to him. (Don’t you always hope artists you like have another artist who does for them what they do for you? And then wonder if the reason for what they do is that they don’t?) I hoped he’d gotten that wine stain out of his blazer, from that spill late in the show. And I hoped we’d meet again, some sunny day.